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Gunfire interrupts first press conference by 'Pentagon's man'


By Kim Sengupta in Baghdad


19 April 2003



As Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon's candidate for leader of Iraq, was being asked if he was a thief, the sound of gunfire interrupted the press conference. Mr Chalabi insisted his conviction for embezzling $60m (£38m) was all a plot.


Outside, one of his supporters, Haqi Ismail, sat in shock dabbing the graze on his nose from one of the eight bullets fired into his pick-up truck.


At his first press conference since returning to Baghdad, Mr Chalabi predicted that Iraqis would rule the country through an interim government "within weeks rather than months". He also ruled out a leadership role for the UN, saying: "I do not think that the United Nations is either capable or has the credibility in Iraq to play a major role."


But the shooting was just a vignette of post-Saddam politics in the Iraqi capital. Mr Chalabi, who left Iraq 45 years ago at the age of 12 and has just been flown back by the Americans, laid out his grand plans for the future of the country to the media. The reality, however, was out in the streets.


Mr Ismail, a kinsman from Nasiriyah, had been attacked for having a Chalabi poster on his windscreen, and was lucky to escape with his life on his first day of campaigning.


Not that there was any reason to campaign. In his press conference Mr Chalabi acted as if he already ran the country, while insisting, all the while, that he had no interest in standing in any election.


All he was doing, he maintained, was helping to create a civic society and a true and honest democratic system.


"I am not a candidate for any position in the interim government," he said. "I am a citizen of Iraq and I am home and I am expressing my views as a citizen of Iraq."


But it was not long before his chequered past came up. In August 1989 he had been accused of fraud in Jordan over the collapse of Petra Bank, which he owned. He left for a holiday in Damascus – in the boot of a friend's car – and was convicted in absentia.


What did he think of the fact that the few people who have heard of him in Baghdad think he is a thief, he was asked. He responded: "This was an aggression committed against me by the Jordanian military at the behest of Saddam's regime. This issue has never been raised by the [iraqi] people who have come to see me. I will clarify this issue very soon."


In an increasingly surreal atmosphere he refused to explain what the flag of his movement – yellow, green and blue with what looked like red cluster bombs in the middle – symbolised. It was being carried by the Free Iraqi Forces, he said. But who exactly were they? "They are brave volunteers who are part of the coalition forces. Just like the British they are under General Tommy Franks," he responded.


How did he explain that these volunteers have told journalists that they were in fact being paid around $300 a month by him, Mr Chalabi. "It is not $300, that is not the right figure," said Mr Chalabi looking rather alarmed, perhaps at the prospect that he was overpaying them by mistake.


Outside, Mr Ismail was examining bullet holes on the headrest of his seat. What did he think? "I think maybe some people do not like Mr Chalabi too much," he ventured.





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